Just Finished Reading: Bosworth – The Birth of the Tudors by Chris Skidmore (FP: 2013)
I’m not sure what it’s like now (though I can guess) but back in my school days in the 70’s every school aged child in England knew the date August 1485. It was the day that England changed direction and, arguably, our greatest age began. On August 22nd of that year a battle took place forever known as Bosworth Field where the young and untried Henry Tudor unexpectedly defeated the battle hardened King Richard III and started the Tudor dynasty. Ever since historians, and quite a few contemporary observers, wondered how exactly Henry managed to pull off this amazing feat of arms. He was young, largely untried in battle, had a much smaller and more poorly armed force and he was facing one of the most successful English generals of the age who had everything to lose so had an overwhelming force to back him up. Yet, in a matter of hours Richard was dead and Henry triumphant. The story of exactly how that came to pass is the meat of this detailed and intriguing book.
It is no real surprise that the creator of Game of Thrones, George R R Martin, based the political background to his series on the Wars of the Roses. If you’ve watched the HBO series or read the books you’ll already have an appreciation of aspects of the deadly decade’s long conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York. Full of intrigue, double (and triple) dealing, betrayal, sudden change of allegiance, unexplained death and downright evil the later named Wars of the Roses had it all – in spades! Both sides of the conflict, which often split families pitting father against son and brother against brother, gave nor received quarter and often took delight in slaughtering their opponents against every previous convention of war. Two particular incidents spring to mind. After one particularly brutal battle (Tewksbury, I think) the leaders of the losing side fell back to a local cathedral and claimed sanctuary in the expectation that they would, according to custom, eventually be taken prisoner and ransomed back to their families. Unfortunately for them the victors had no intention of facing them in battle again, ordered their troops inside the church and dragged them outside to be beheaded in the public square. So much blood had been spilt inside the church that it had to be re-consecrated. On another occasion a leader of one faction was caught fleeing England across the channel to France. Caught by the other faction’s ships he was brought on to the enemy’s flagship and, without much ceremony, executed with a deliberately rusty sword causing the attempt at beheading to take 5-6 swings in total. As I say, brutal and unforgiving.
Richard’s powerbase began crumbling from the day he, literally, took office as King over the much better claims of the two children of King Edward IV forever known as ‘the Princes in the Tower’. The author kind of glosses over this darkest of dark incidents but there is no getting away from the fact that Richard put them in the Tower and they clearly never came out again. Ruthless in his actions to consolidate and hold on to power he turned even his most loyal servants against him finally. So much so that, at Bosworth itself, when everything hinged on the actions of a few men, those men effectively sat on their hands and did nothing to protect their King.
Despite the fact that I am becoming increasingly familiar with the period I still managed to learn a great deal from this book, especially about Henry’s time in France (actually Brittany which was a separate state back then) and much more about the shifting powerbase on both sides of the conflict. Be warned though, there are a lot of people involved in this take and more than a fair number of them have both the same name and the same title. More than once I stopped myself and thought: hold on a second, I thought he was dead, only to realise that it was the *next* Duke of this or Earl of that who was *also* called Edward or Richard. You definitely have to keep your wits about you with this period of history. One final thing which my American readership should find interesting is that, despite the fact that Bosworth took place over 500 years ago passions around the York/Lancaster split still enrage passions today. When the body of Richard III was recently discovered in Leicester to resultant publicity and law cases over the disposition of his remains got very heated at times with both Yorkists and Lancastrians coming out of the woodwork to shout abuse at each other. Of course the Yorkists had it all wrong. The fact is that they lost and should just get over it – being a Lancastrian myself has, of course, nothing to do with it. An excellent romp through some of our bloodiest history and highly recommended.